It’s hard to imagine being able to use a spy-thriller series to talk about feminism. Even the most progressive James Bond films still have the women in distress or wanting to bed Bond, and more often both.
But Mission: Impossible is an interesting case study, because the series has consistent stars and producers, but it’s been going for 22 years.
What I’ll do here is break down the major female characters and see if there’s a trend to be found.
Mission: Impossible — There are really only two women of note in the film: Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) and Max (Vanessa Redgrave). Max comes off better, as a self-possessed arms dealer with an agenda and the means to bring it about. Claire, on the other hand, is a pawn of both Jim and Ethan as the story progresses, and her only moment of defiance is when she begs Jim not to kill Ethan (because, I guess, she loves him?) and gets killed for her trouble. This is clearly a mixed bag for the women.
Mission: Impossible II — This film has but one woman: Nyah (Thandie Newton). Her opening shows her to be a gifted thief who has no problem walking away from Ethan. But soon enough she’s mooney-eyed over him. Then she finds out she’s needed, not for any skills she has, but for her past relationship to Ambrose. She makes some noise about how that’s unfair, but she still does it. She manages one decent pickpocketing, but then screws up the return of the thing she stole. Her big moment is injecting herself with the virus, rather than handing it over to Ambrose. That feels like the character exercising her agency, but the only result is that she’s left as the damsel in distress for the third act. It’s starting to look a little better.
Mission: Impossible III — We’ve got a bunch of women in this one. One is a gung-ho agent named Linday (Keri Russell) who has some serious skills–and is then killed. Ethan’s new fiance is Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She gets to do some medical stuff and shoot a couple of people at the end. So that’s pretty good. Lastly, we have Zhen (Maggie Q) who is an actual female IMF agent who survives the film! (A first for the series.) Unfortunately, her job seems to be to wear a slinky dress to the Vatican that one time, and other than that she blows up a lot of stuff.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — For this film we have one woman who’s a good guy (Jane, played by Paula Patton) and one who’s a bad guy (Moreau, played by Lea Seydoux). Part of me thinks it great that Jane has an actual story arc. Then part of me is annoyed that her story arc is about the dude she thought was cute getting killed. Moreau is an effective antagonist, and the fight she has with Jane is brutal, and only involved their clothes getting ripped once. So that’s something. I guess.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — Now we introduce Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who breathes life into this franchise. The film has no problem showing off her body in slinky dresses and bathing suits, but it isn’t central to her purpose in the story. She’s an agent no less effective and lethal than Ethan, and she even gets to save Ethan in one pretty spectacular sequence. Her final fight with the lead henchman is hers and hers alone; Ethan is off doing something else. If only there were any other women of note, we might have had a truly feminist entry into the series.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout — Sadly, Ilsa doesn’t fare quite as well in the next film. She’s still a bad-ass with her own agenda. But she’s also largely defined by her attraction to Ethan. Every time there’s anything mentioning or showing Julia, there’s a cut to Ilsa looking sad. Julia comes off a little better, I’d say. She has a new husband and while she still has a connection to Ethan, it’s not like she defines herself by her relationship to him. White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is basically a copy of the Max character from the first film, which is great. And they add Angela Bassett into the mix as the CIA Director (?).
All in all, I think there’s a clear trend line (at least after M:I2), from movie to movie, toward more feminist portrayals of women. An argument could be made that Fallout is a dip on that trend, but the sheer number of women, all of whom have something to do in the story, is worth valuing.
Anyway. There you go.